Drought: secure today, but prepare for tomorrow
Opinion Editorial on ABC Online
Published: 26 October 2007
National Farmers’ Federation
AS WE have seen over the past year, drought can take an emotional, as well as financial toll on farmers, placing individuals, families and local communities under extraordinary stress.
Helping people cope under such pressure is essential but the challenges of a changing climate demand a visionary new approach in the way Australia deals with drought.
The response to the current crisis has been magnificent.
Australians have united in a measured and timely way to deal with the priority of supporting farm families through the worst drought on record.
Following the failure of another winter crop, the Prime Minister moved to tackle the crisis ‘head on’ with a $1.14 billion package, which sensibly protects Australia’s vital agricultural base. Labor also supported the package.
The flexibility introduced to the Exceptional Circumstances (EC) drought ‘safety net’ – which puts food on the table and provides short-term help in paying some of the bills – will now benefit more families.
And the plans for the Murray-Darling Basin should assist irrigators – who face zero water allocations over spring – to help secure their productive capacity in a region that accounts for 40 per cent of Australia’s food output.
Of course, the suffering goes beyond the farm-gate as the knock-on effects of drought stretch regional businesses, contractors, and entire communities.
A drought of this depth and length will have long-term structural implications for the whole farm sector. Targeted measures for those unable to continue in farming, who wish to move on, will get professional help to do so. That is prudent.
Clearly, we must deal with the ‘here-and-now’. But, ultimately, all Australians – including farmers – recognise that relief, although important, is a stop-gap measure.
Much hinges on our farmers’ ability to prepare for and meet the challenges of any longer-term shift in climate. We need to research the probability and extent of change and what form it may take – there may be areas of higher and areas of lower rainfall with more or fewer extreme events. All of these present challenges and opportunities.
As a nation, we have come to a point where we must think strategically about how we plan for, and deal with drought. That the current drought has already slashed three-quarters of a per cent off Australia’s national economic growth, in addition to the impact on regional communities, underscores the urgency of the situation.
Our farming base supports 1.6 million Australian jobs – more than half of these in the cities, covering retail, wholesale, transport, processing, packaging and more. It also accounts for 20 per cent of our national exports ($30 billion a year) and over half the daily food needs of the Australian population.
That’s why, beyond the ‘here-and-now’, both sides of politics must show leadership and commit to a long-term willingness to work with farmers in safeguarding productive farm lands and the agricultural economy.
Australia needs a ‘mutual obligation’ system to partner with farmers in investing in drought preparation, planning and recovery. That is, for every dollar the Government invests in drought preparedness, participating farmers must match it, either dollar-for-dollar or in-kind.
To be effective, climate management strategies must be available to all farmers who pass eligibility criteria.
They must also have a drought management plan, or a business plan that incorporates drought management strategies, to counter a changing climate and they must have already implemented some form of drought mitigation activity, such as conservation till practices and water-saving drip irrigation systems.
Don’t misunderstand this proposal. It is not simply a matter of working with those farmers who are already in drought (EC) declared areas.
If the full benefits of effective drought preparedness and management measures are to be realised, they must be widely available so that all farmers can prepare for, and mitigate against, the impact of climate change ‘before’ they are in the grip of another drought.
We envisage the strategies covering a variety of approved activities, including trialling new drought-resistant technologies or different farm systems, to implement long-term sustainable stocking levels and innovative farm practices.
It is a positive plan, one that takes a quantum leap in dealing with drought, particularly in the face of any long-term climate change. It also recognises, and builds upon, the environmental management practices already in place on 92 per cent of Australian farms.
The overwhelming majority of farmers are already doing ‘the right thing’, the problem is they can’t do it ‘all’ alone.
We can better drought-proof Australia, and we need to. Innovative farmers who are properly empowered will link with scientists to develop systems and practices that are region-specific and boost drought resilience.
It is smarter to invest in more drought-resistant practices today and, over time, reduce the need for drought relief. This is a generational shift in thinking. But it’s a necessary, commonsense and forward-looking approach if we are to move from drought relief to drought preparedness.
Farmers recognise environmentally-sustainable farming is essential to their survival.
They must be better equipped to deal with drought today, safeguard against climate change and future droughts, and lessen the severity of drought impacts on Australia. This is important for the economy, the environment and for the health of regional communities.
This is precisely this shift in thinking that the National Farmers’ Federation 2007 Federal Election Policy Platform (see was designed to stimulate and foster. If changes are not made now, Australia will continue to suffer the effects of drought, our agricultural sector will be eroded and the quality of life for all Australians will be diminished.
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